From outsider to superstar: Lowndes' historic Sydney debut

  • Repco Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 20/10/2021
  • By James Pavey, Pics by AN1 Images

In 1996, a floodlight Eastern Creek Raceway - now known as Sydney Motorsport Park - was the scene of Craig Lowndes’ stunning debut round win.

The 2021 Repco Supercars Championship will resume under lights in Sydney next weekend.

A quarter of a century ago, Lowndes burst onto the scene with round victory at the venue, setting the tone for an unprecedented run of success.

Lowndes had already thrown his name in lights with a memorable Bathurst debut in 1994, when he pushed John Bowe in the closing stages.

He then followed it up with pole for both enduros at Sandown and Bathurst.

Still, few would have anticipated the legacy he would build in Australian touring car racing.

Lowndes won six of 10 rounds en route to a dominant 1996 championship victory.

He won a record 16 races, a marker which went untouched until Scott McLaughlin won 18 races in 2019.

Lowndes’ success in 1996 earned him a seat in Europe’s Formula 3000 series in 1997.

He returned to Australia in 1998, and duly won the first round at Sandown en route to title No. 2.

To 2021, no driver has started more races than Lowndes’ 673, and only Jamie Whincup has won more races than his 110.

Lowndes tackles Eastern Creek in '96

Lowndes’ journey officially began on January 26, 1996, with the then 21-year-old brought crowds to their feet at Eastern Creek’s short layout.

“The short track was an exciting little circuit, but under lights as it was back then, it was a great challenge for me,” Lowndes told Supercars.com.

“I enjoy night racing. I always have, and always will.

“It was an exciting time for me; when I went into that weekend, no one thought I'd win a race, let alone the championship!”

Holden Racing Team wunderkind Lowndes tested with mentor and teammate Peter Brock in late 1995 at the circuit.

Bowe leads Lowndes and Seton in the opening heat

The week-long running proved crucial to Lowndes, who after missing out in the 1995 enduros, needed laps to arrive in 1996 as a winning force.

“The testing that we did at the end of ’95 at Eastern Creek laid the foundations for ’96,” he said.

"We did about four or five days’ testing on the Bridgestones. Peter and I were just pumping laps.

“I was fairly confident going into the weekend in '96 because I’d done so many laps there.

“As soon as we rolled out of pit lane, I knew where I needed to put the car to be quick."

Cars ready for the night Race 3

It would prove a masterstroke when the 1996 season got underway, with Lowndes winning two of three races and the round.

The new wave of talent went beyond Lowndes, who had replaced Tomas Mezera at HRT; Russell Ingall also made his debut with an expanded Perkins Engineering.

Early in the Sydney weekend, and key figures of 1995 - Bowe, Brock and Seton - looked to continue their form by locking out the top three spots in qualifying.

Brock led the early laps of Race 1, but a spin dropped the nine-time Bathurst winner down the order.

From there, Bowe proved his stance as being ‘harder to pass than a kidney stone’, a stance furthered with an epic Sydney battle with Glenn Seton in 1997.

'I enjoy night racing. I always have, and always will'

Lowndes got his own back in Races 2 and 3, with brake dramas forcing Bowe into spins at Turn 2 in both later races.

The HRT ace dominated the twilight second heat, with Lowndes lapping quicker than Bowe’s pole time.

Lowndes was untouchable in the floodlit final race, with former world motorcycle champion Wayne Gardner second in the race and the weekend.

Bowe, Seton and Dick Johnson completed the overall top five. Brock and Mark Skaife didn’t even start the night race following a nasty Turn 3 crash earlier in the day.

Bowe still managed to claim a podium finish; there, Lowndes earned praise from a titan of the series, which he said helped set him on his path to Europe.

Lighting will be different in 2021 versus 1996

“I remember sitting in the press conference next to JB,” Lowndes reminisced.

“He made some great comments praising what we’d achieved that weekend. He was the reigning champion, after all!

“He was also a supporter of me, and he backed my plans to get over to Europe.

“I guess it was two-fold; he was a big supporter of junior drivers, but he also wanted to get rid of me because we kept winning!

“It was great to have someone of his calibre, who had been in the series for so long, in my corner."

Lowndes went on to win the title, Sandown and Bathurst

Lowndes would have to wait until 1999 to claim another Eastern Creek win. Six years later, also in Sydney, he claimed Triple Eight’s first ever race win.

Saturday victory in 2012 would be his fifth and final Sydney Motorsport Park win, with his 10th and final Sydney podium coming in 2016.

The venue will host four consecutive rounds ahead of December's Repco Bathurst 1000, which will be Lowndes' first start in 14 months.

Just as it was in 1996, Lowndes was champing at the bit to see cars return to action over 100 days since the chequered flag flew in Townsville.

“It lends itself to the cars really well,” Lowndes said of Sydney Motorsport Park.

"There are long-loading corners, sharp corners and great elevation changes.

“There’s no doubt that by the time we get to the fourth weekend, teams will have their heads around set-ups.

“Tyre life and wear is high, and the track has always produced good racing.

“It’s a great place to get the season back underway."

The 2021 Repco Supercars Championship will continue at next weekend’s Bunnings Trade Sydney SuperNight. Tickets for all four upcoming Sydney events are on sale now.

All sessions will be broadcast live on Fox Sports and streamed via Kayo. The Seven Network will broadcast live from 3:30pm AEDT on Saturday and 12:30pm AEDT on Sunday.

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